Tuesday, 30 April 2013

under the volcano

Another sad goodbye.  We part with Clara early on a Monday morning and head off clockwise around the lower slopes of Etna.  There’s been some more snow around the cone since we arrived in Catania and it looks more dramatic now we are getting closer to it.  We are in no rush and in some ways feel like we are going through the motions – we planned to circuit the volcano before we take the ferry to Napoli but after our time with Clara it feels a bit of an anti-climax.  This isn’t helped by the first few roads we take connecting small towns.  Many are lined with piles of garbage.  Not just odd bits of litter but bags and bags of rubbish brought and dumped here.  It’s the ugly side of Sicily which we had forgotten about.  A couple of days later we discover a comment in the guidebook about the litter in these specific areas – so nothing has changed here in the four years since it was researched.   We think this part of Sicily has the densest population – in every sense.  Thankfully we finally leave it all behind as our road climbs and gets further from Catania. 

The consumption of arancina, a classic Scicilian snack

On our second day we come to Bronte, famed across Italy for its pistachios.  But what appeals to us is the strange connection to Haworth just over the moors from where we live in West Yorkshire.  Back in the 1790’s Lord Nelson came along to Napoli and quashed a local rebellion against their Bourbon rulers – we’re not sure why Nelson got involved, but in thanks for his successful effort, the Bourbon king gave Nelson a large tract of land around Bronte and made him the Duchy of Bronte.   He never visited but his family kept the estate until the 1980s.  Sometime in the 1800s a Yorkshire minister called Prunty, who was an admirer of Nelson, decided to change his name to Bronte.  His three daughters then made the name famous in the literary world.  There’s an abandoned monastery which Nelson’s descendants converted into the family house and it’s now a quiet tourist attraction.  When we arrive late on a sunny Sunday afternoon there are plenty of people picnicking in the grounds and having a look around.  We then discover another strange connection – that Nelson was born in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk.  We’ve come off the main route around Etna and the surrounding countryside looks much better for it.  To the north are the Nebrodi hills which look unpopulated and enticing.  We camp in an overgrown olive grove and are awoken early next morning by two workers who have started to trim the trees at the other end.   The trees are so thick and leafy we don’t think they ever see us before we pack up and go.
Nelson's "castle" - which he never saw
The days are sunny and hot so we have been taking very long lunch breaks in the small towns we come across.  They always get that deserted look after one o’clock.  The mountain smokes away in the background and we are reminded of its presence in every town as the main streets are always unevenly cobbled in bone-shuddering black basalt.   We have reached the wine-producing region and the slopes are covered in vineyards and old abandoned mansions in amongst the huge terraces.  Now and again the road crosses a large and old lava flow.  Our last camp is on the north eastern face of the mountain in some woods.  During the night we can hear Etna rumbling loudly and in the morning the cloud is low and it rains.  We set off once the tent has dried out and traverse the volcano’s flanks on a high road giving great views out to sea.  The road is covered in black grit, like crunchy sand.  Ash from the volcano.  In some villages it looks like it has only just fallen.  There are road signs saying that if there is ash on the road then cyclists and motorbikes are not allowed.  We have no choice but to continue but it’s Saturday and the roads are fairly quiet.  In the afternoon we begin the very long descent back into the suburban madness on the coast around Catania.  We arrive back in the city at the end of the day and make our way to the port to cook our tea, buy our ticket and get on the ferry to Napoli.  

It’s just got dark as we eat and Gayle suddenly notices the glowing fire spuming upwards out of Etna.  The volcano is erupting.  After a while the fiery flow of lava can be seen crawling down the mountainside.  We are suitably awestruck and quite happy to be watching it all from the port.  It’s thrilling to watch and thrilling to think we were camped on this monster just last night.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Catania e Clara

So we've had a bit of time to ourselves as we've cycled through Sicily, but it still seems extraordinary that within only a few minutes of meeting Clara, our host, at her home it feels like we are meeting an old friend.  We love the thrill of riding into a big city and the expectation of what we might find there but it would have been impossible to anticipate our experience in Catania.  But before we get to Clara's we first have to navigate a nasty double roundabout on the edge of the port.  Hey, is that a discount supermarket?  Let's go round one more time!  Down in the port all seems ordered and peaceful compared to the surrounding chaotic streets.  We just need a timetable for the ferry to Napoli and then on into the centre.  My backside protests as much as my bike when we hit the cobbled streets. Cobbles. Everywhere.  The city has the bustle of Palermo despite the heat.  We seek refuge in the central park - plenty of shade and peace and cycle tourists - here we meet Maxim and Elodie on a tandem with their son, Timeo, in a trailer.
the duomo
Clara lives in the oldest quarter of Catania, San Christoforo, in a rambling old four-storey house on one of the main streets in the centre of the city.  We negotiate the backstreets, the unexpected hills, the one-way system and, at an enormous iron door, ring Clara's buzzer.  She has warned us - she lives on the top floor.  We carry all our gear and our bikes up the gloomy stairway.  There are people shouting across to each other in the atrium.  Baking smells waft upwards to us.  Radio on in the background.  It's a stereotypical Italian scene.  
you can have any colour of fruit as long as it's...
Clara's appartment is an oasis of calm and tranquility, light but cool, with huge vaulted ceilings.   Clara herself is fabulously friendly and open and we know straight away we will get on.  A glance at the way her home is decorated with wonderful textiles and pictures, the Ryzard Kapucinski books on the shelf, the welcome cup of tea and just the way she is.  Hard to put my finger on it.  Clara lives a busy life and over the next few days she candidly and thoughtfully draws us into it.  We get to see the city as tourists do - we wander the streets and take photos, check out the daily fish market, sit in the park when it's too hot.  But we also get to see the side of the city that Clara lives in - the place where she teaches, working with kids with special needs, the community hall that she and her friends run, providing support to women and children living in a neglected area.  
polenta with Clara & her parents
We get to meet her parents - out at their 'orto', their small-holding, where they grow olives, grapes, lemons, figs, flowers, strawberries and a medley of salad leaves. Despite all her other commitments she still finds time to take us to some of the places we won't get to by bike.  A couple of evenings she shows us parts of the city centre.  In Piazza Dante there is the incredible unfinished church - a mighty construction left half built, brickwork exposed behind stone cladding, doors locked.  Down near the port are the streets of 18th century houses left crumbling almost to dust - abandoned to immigrants and poor locals.  The city, like most of Italy, is awash with wonderful old palazzos too numerous to care for.  We meet some of Clara's great friends and go to a Manitese fund-raiser evening where there's some hearty food, wine served in small buckets and an amateur rock band that does Led Zeppelin and Gloria Gaynor covers - very bad but in a good way. 

heavy discounting on thermal underwear

We meet Mor, from Senegal, who with his uncle, brother and other Senegalese friends have a drumming group. On a Saturday night in a sweaty little club we are hypnotised by their performance - a powerful and dramatic affair, full of joy and passion.  Mor, a rather dour and quiet man, glows with adrenaline and happiness as he drives the beat along.  Solo dancers, young Senegalese men mostly, step forward to match their moves with the drummers' rhythms in what seems like a challenge, but is often a spontaneous choreography - it's jazz, man. This was an unforgettable evening.

On another day we head down to Syracuse, originally a Greek settlement, and one of the places we didn't manage to get to on our bicycles.  
The old town has been renovated and restored  - it's pretty and pleasantly pedestrianised.  The duomo was built on the site of a Greek temple using the huge doric columns which are still visible.  Inside a smaller church there's a Caravaggio hanging over the altar.  Down at the shoreline is a spring - the original freshwater source for the city.  In complete contrast to Syracuse, Clara takes us to a wonderful tiny mountaintop village called Forza d'Agro north of Catania.  Perched on a rocky ridge overlooking the sea, the village's old houses surrounding the fort at the pinnacle have been abandoned.  An effort to renovate and restore them has stalled - it's a far cry from the monies that UNESCO heritage sites attract.

Padre Pio, the omnipresent patron saint of jewellery street vendors
Somewhere along the way Clara has helped us get replacement bike chains - through her brother-in-law.  We have struggled to find decent bike shops since we left Palermo - only finding one that looked decent (it was closed).  It's hard to imagine because we've seen lots of fellas out on their fancy-looking road bikes in their fancy-looking lycra.  Our problem is we're riding mountain bikes and there's not much of a business in these kind of bikes.

Our time here has been eventful and fascinating and Clara is in severe danger of having permanent house-guests.  She thinks we're joking.  We're not.  We know we're on a journey, and we have an idea of our route ahead.  But nothing prepares us for the wonderful people we meet along the way.

stencils not bombs

Monday, 15 April 2013

higher ground

A Sunday morning and rain is threatening when we ride into Caltagirone.  It's bigger than we first realised - we've arrived at the back, at the top of the town.  There's a cruddy sign - UNESCO World Heritage site.  Everything looks scruffy and shabby, but then this is Italy.  There's a worn-out lived-in look about everywhere.  We take a street that traverses the steep hillside on which the town is perched.  Buildings sweep down a long ridge.  Everywhere we look there are very long staircases, baroque churches turning black with mould and pollution.  The bakeries and bars are open and there are a few people around.  By lunchtime though, it seems almost busy.  The rain clouds have passed over and we can see a storm burst over the small town perched on the next hilltop.  Just another day cycling through Sicily.
packed up and ready with the suncream
One morning we are having our second brew and waiting for the sun to dry the last bits of dew on our tent.  The wild flowers in the field are slowly starting to unfurl in the sunlight.  We hear the sound of a tractor getting louder, nearer, until finally a farmer drives along the hedgerow in the next field.  We wave and he stops and we have a quick chat.  Is it okay? we ask, we're just leaving.  No problem, he insists, stay a week, a month! If you need anything just ask at the house over there.  

The valley below Ragusa is in its pomp - the edge of the road is abundant with flowers - they bulge out into the country road.  Once again we find ourselves cycling slowly uphill to enter the town, emerging in the lower old town that has been wonderfully renovated and spruced up.  We stay a couple of nights in a 300 year old family home now a B&B.  It feels almost decadent to take a much-needed shower and to wash all our stuff in the bathroom.  There's a buffet breakfast and I'm reminded of the photograph I keep seeing from an old Italian film where a group of down and outs are stuffing their faces with spaghetti bolognese.  A famous comic whose name I don't know is cramming his pockets with spaghetti.   

Ragusa is a great place to wander, with steep narrow streets and wonderful views of church domes and frilly palazzos sticking up above the rooftops whilst weird and ugly faces from the baroque facades stare down at us.

'New' Ragusa is built on the plateau above the old town in a more regimented grid - all of it dates from the early 1700s when the city was rebuilt after a big earthquake flattened this part of the island.  The town is full of small shops but many seem to have closed down.  There are out of town shopping malls in the big towns but the old centres remain fairly traditional.  It's hard to know if the abandoned look of so many city centre streets is due to the current recession or just a long-term decline.  There are 'for rent' and 'for sale' signs everywhere.
We pass through Modica and start to head northwards towards Etna, staying in the hills as we're enjoying the cycling.  Here the green fields are divided by dry-stone walls and it reminds us of home, apart from the occasional palm tree and the ever-present sunshine.  Wind turbines appear in clusters now and again - there always seems to be some wind - and at night you can make out the ridgelines from the row of red lights of the turbines.

 Each day we arrive at a new town without knowing what we'll find there.  To our surprise a lot of the towns seem quite large.  Once you get past the ugly modern appartment blocks on the edges you find a warren of streets filled with lovely old buildings and piazzas dotted here and there.  In each town we wonder how can the grand old buildings be left to fall into decay - but there are so many it must be impossible to save them all and so for each one that looks beautifully restored there is another one looking tired and probably past the point of no return.  Maybe this contrast helps the towns to remain interesting and authentic.  

We draw out the ride up to Catania, which sits at the foot of Etna.  We are taking each day slowly and make the most of the sunshine.  We have had a fortnight of good weather, good cycling and good camping.  How could we have known Sicily would be so kind to us?
view from a wild camp near Ferla

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

wild Sicilia

Our first night back in the tent is in a grove of lemon trees just outside Cefalu.  The ride along the coast has been fairly uneventful but the views of the mountains climbing up from the shore have been wonderful.  It's holiday time, the roads are quiet.  On the coast we come to a swathe of holiday villages - huge estates of holiday homes in fenced compounds.  At first it seems quite ugly, but at least everything is low-level.  We stop at a cafe to fill up with water for the night.  It's 4pm and the streets are deserted but gradually as the sun begins to lower more and more people emerge from these estates to take an ice-cream or a coffee, play the slot machine in the bar, or buy a lottery ticket.  We finally shuffle off along the back road to look for a spot to camp. Sunset is about 7.30 pm so we can't camp too early for risk of being discovered but at the same time we want some light to cook.  In our lemon grove we are only overlooked by a rare passing train.
Cefalu is a pleasant town squeezed into the small space between the mountains and sea.  The narrow streets lead to a pretty piazza in front of the main church.  The sun is blazing and we can't believe how hot it is.  The town features in Cinema Paradiso, but I struggle to identify any familiar places.  Only afterwards do I wonder if there's an actual cinema in the town.  We are in search of parts for the bikes and the tourist office sends us off to a scooter shop - the fools might just have been trying to get rid of us.  Down at the sea we munch our sandwiches and  a steady stream of visitors amble down to the quayside in search of shelter from the wind.  From here we take a road inland climbing into one of the national parks.  As we pedal under one of the huge autostrada bridges I finally recognise something from the opening scenes in Cinema Paradiso - the tall concrete structure represents the changing modernising world in contrast to the Sicilia of yesteryear.  

It's not long before we are high up above the coast.  Our road climbs steadily for two days as we slowly ascend into the Madonie mountains - the biggest after Etna on the island.  We start to get a feel for the interior as we pass through a succession of hilltop towns, perched on defendable hilltops overlooking the farmland below.  We get a sense of the origins of Sicilia - of the warring factions that controlled the different parts of the island.  The history reads like a Who's Who of European empires: Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Normans, Spanish....

We are happy to find that our trip to Tunisia at the end of winter has paid off.  Now, at the beginning of April the weather is warm and the wildflowers are in abundance.  The land is a vibrant green.  Later we are told how the landscape is transformed in the summer heat - made unrecognisable in the harsh dry conditions.  But now our eyes can relax and feel soothed by the lush vegetation.  The days are sunny and hot and the nights are the warmest we've had since we left Poland.  We soon get into a rhythm of cycling in the morning to a town where we can buy our food, then take a long lunch before riding on in the mid-afternoon siesta while the roads are still quiet.  We are still amazed at how everything seems to come to a standstill at 1pm.  If we ride into a town between 1 and 4 it often feels like a ghost town - shop shutters are down, no people around, no cars.  Then towards the end of the day we start to look around for a camping spot.  A lot of land is cultivated and often fenced and locked to keep people out, but not everywhere.  We also realise that few farmers are actually living in their farmhouses - at day's end most seem to drive back to the town in their Fiat Panda.  (It is obligatory for farmers to drive old Fiat Pandas.)  We find some really nice camping pitches and on our second night Gayle has already spotted Etna in the distance.
The weirdest phenomenon we come across is the closed road that is not closed.  Whilst signs proclaim our chosen road closed, we are told by locals that the road is in fact passable.  It seems that road repairs take time here.  So we find ourselves on exceptionally quiet routes, used only by locals, where the road has fallen away in places, or cracked and shifted like a writhing snake.  These roads are good ones for wild camping.  Then one morning we come to a sign that says "Totally Closed".  A farmer confirms it.  But then we wave down another car, and a woman tells us in a broad Brooklyn accent, that we might be able to get through if we push our bikes. She is our age, dressed in black, with black hair and black sunglasses.  She looks and sounds like the stereotypical mobster's moll.  This is undoubtedly because she is one.  However, she seems trustworthy and we take the chance.  She turns out to be right.  The road is totally closed but we can carry our bikes and bags over the landslide saving ourselves a massive detour.  The joy of cycling.

Monday, 1 April 2013

surf's up

We are staying with Mario and Eliana again over the Easter weekend which is a real pleasure for us.  At the same time we are hoping to catch up with Rachel and Alistair who have flown here for the long holiday weekend.  We first met in a bike shop in Bangkok three years ago - having both decided to try out cycle-touring.  And then about a month later we walked into a little restaurant in a town in Laos and there they were again.  We know where they are staying but we once again are struggling for want of a phone - they have arrived before us and gone out but we don't know when they'll be back. Never mind - we have other jobs to do and it's great to wander the city centre anyway.  It's even better when you happen across possibly the finest gelateria in Sicily, if not Italy. 
our favourite gelateria (so far)....

 We follow in reverse a trail of people bearing enormous cones or brioche filled with ice cream.  Is that really an ice-cream sandwich?  Eliana tells us later that in Summer many people will have one of these for lunch.  We stick to cones, which are first lined with melted chocolate before the gelato is paddled onto the cone.  We cannot walk down the street with them - we have to sit down to eat.  Around 2pm most of the streets are quiet but the gelateria is buzzing steadily with customers coming and going just like a beehive.

Alistair and Rachel have hired a car and have been travelling madly around the island to catch some of the Easter activities going on in some of the smaller towns.  We head into the hills with them on Easter Day and stop in Piana del Albanesi, a small town with inhabitants of Albanian origin.
Piana del Albanesi
There's a fair number of people milling around the church on the main street and quite a lot of locals in traditional dress.  They finally gather together to form a procession towards the church. We head off across the high hills towards the coast.  This is our first look at the rest of Sicily and we're not disappointed - lots of green, lots of hills and lots of wild flowers. 
Piana del Albanesi

But navigating the small roads and new autostrada is a bit of a pain.  We finally pop out on the coast and visit a tiny village given rave reviews in the guidebook - it's pretty but not remarkable - the curse of the guidebook.  There are lots of Italian tourists about but it's not too hectic.  The time has flown by and it seems we are saying goodbye to Rachel and Alistair almost as soon as we've said hello.
near Scopello
The Spring is here for certain and Mario and Eliana have plenty of work with their roof garden.  We are finally getting the hang of Italian eating habits too.  It seems breakfast consists principally of coffee.  Lunch is the main meal at around 2pm when all shops and offices close for most of the afternoon.  There may be a starter of soup, then pasta, and then perhaps meat and some vegetables followed by fruit for dessert and an expresso.  Dinner in the evening is usually a lighter affair.  We spend a couple of relaxing evenings watching films - Mario has picked them out for us especially.  He's still blogging about films.  Sonia, their daughter living downstairs is also going to start hosting on couch-surfing.  She asks Gayle to check the English in her profile - but her English is very good.  There's a funny moment when she discusses a photo of herself to use on the site with Eliana and Mario.  The bikini shot of her in a boat is probably not the right one - we tell her we think that Italian men seem to use couch-surfing as a dating agency.  We've noticed how there are lots of men offering to host, but when you check the references of people who have stayed with them, they're all young women.
in Scopello with Rachel & Alistair

It's a holiday on Easter Monday so the roads are quiet when we head off from Palermo.  We've had a really enjoyable time here and we know that our stay with Mario and Eliana has made it a better one.  Our one regret is our poor Italian - everyone here is very open and friendly and we can only say a few basic things.